About a year ago I published an American Compass essay on “The Five Deadly Sins of the Left.” In that essay, I addressed the surprising fact that the left has not performed as well as one might expect, given the poor performance of free-market capitalism in the 21st century. Even the financial crisis of 2008–09 did not spur any real realignment of voters toward the left. Nor have—so far—the twin economic and health crises brought on by the COVID pandemic. What has gone wrong?
A year ago, I put forward a simple theory. The public just isn’t interested in buying what the left is selling. No matter how loudly the left hawks its wares or how heroically it organizes, it will not succeed. The left’s internal diagnoses lead it to believe that, in picking up the pieces from this global debacle, it can finally gain the elusive majority support it needs. But, I argued, durable mass support for the left will not emerge unless and until it radically revamps its offering, abandoning the unhealthy and unpopular obsessions that consume its attention and distract from actual solutions. In particular, it must find the strength to overcome its five deadly sins: identity politics; retro-socialism; catastrophism; growthphobia; and technopessimism.
So, how is the left doing today? In the year since my essay was published, Joe Biden managed to wrest the presidency from Donald Trump, albeit in a closer election than anticipated and with unexpected losses in the House and state legislatures. Yet despite considerable legislative accomplishments, Biden’s approval rating has sunk to a very unimpressive average of 43%. Democrats appear headed for a drubbing in the 2022 elections where they will possibly lose both the House and the Senate. Meanwhile, the Democratic party’s ratings on many key issues are seriously lagging the GOP’s, and its brand appears to be in serious trouble in broad swaths of the country. While there are many reasons for this gloomy outlook, the five deadly sins I described a year ago provide a useful lens through which to evaluate the left’s quest for a durable electoral coalition.
The Sin of Identity Politics
The first deadly sin I discussed was identity politics, a form of politics that goes far beyond traditional left-wing efforts to eliminate discrimination against women, LGBT people, and racial and ethnic minorities. This approach demands a focus on multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”), based on group identification in place of promoting universal rights and principles. A year ago, I argued that:
The left has paid a considerable price for its increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands it as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by elements of the left—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the well-documented rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
Since the 2020 election, I would not say that the situation has improved terribly much. On the plus side, Biden himself is not closely associated with identity politics and. since taking office, he has typically sought to defuse controversies around this brand of politics by characterizing the controversies as Republican attempts to distract voters from Democrats’ more popular policies.
This is certainly better than directly endorsing the highly unpopular rhetoric and practices of the Democratic left in areas like crime, immigration, ideological “anti-racism,” and language policing. But, because it falls short of direct criticism and because the Biden administration itself has drenched many of its own initiatives in rhetoric of “equity,” “systemic racism,” and other buzzwords central to identity politics, the Democratic party has not escaped association with that approach’s more unpopular aspects.
As a result, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans. The latter is ironic, given that much of what Democrats have done—and propose to do—are universal economic and safety-net programs that may disproportionately benefit some racial groups but, contrary to rhetorical claims by Left activists and some in the administration, are not really targeted to them. And yet, a universalist message is simply not getting through.
Instead, the Democrats find themselves weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding is impossible, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately crippled by a torrent of criticism or simply never proposed.
In short, Democrats are stuck. They have not escaped the gravitational field of identity politics and their inability to do so means that their brand cannot sustain a durable majority. Indeed, there are signs that Democrats are experiencing more and more slippage among working class voters of all races. For a left-wing party, that is catastrophic—not just for 2022, but far beyond. They may find out, to their sorrow, that it is far easier to control the commanding heights of cultural production than the commanding heights of political power.
The Sin of Retro-Socialism
The second deadly sin I noted was retro-socialism, which demands a complete remaking of the market system to heal the problems of contemporary capitalism. Last year, I argued that:
By grasping nostalgically at revolutionary rhetoric, the left sets the bar high for public embrace of what might otherwise be quite popular policy ideas, from single-payer health insurance to free college to a job guarantee. Generally, it is not a selling point for voters that your policies are a step along the road to socialism. Moreover, belief in the viability of replacing capitalism and the market encourages unrealistic thinking about policies that might work within a market system and misestimation of how quickly they might be adopted. This tendency has not gone unnoticed by voters, who are pragmatically interested in what is feasible and workable and have no ideological commitment to a different system. The socialist label and terminology undercut efforts to persuade voters that the left’s agenda can work.
Since Biden’s election, there has perhaps been some progress on this score, if for no other reason than neither Biden nor his administration’s COVID relief and infrastructure bills seem particularly socialist. On the other hand, the best way to escape the trap of retro-socialism is to be clearly identified with something distinct that could plausibly produce a better-functioning capitalist system. On this score, there has been less progress. The multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better bill that Democrats are still trying to wrangle through Congress is supposedly “transformational”—but transformation to what?
Democrats have talked about the care economy, a Green New Deal, and other big ideas associated with Build Back Better. But what that adds up to is not clear. Will it all create a more dynamic American capitalism that can lift up broad swaths of the country that have been left behind? Instead, the bill has a “shaggy dog” quality of funneling money to a wide variety of Democratic priorities. Some of this spending will support useful expansions of the notably stingy American welfare system and some will support useful public investments not provided for in the infrastructure bill, particularly in clean energy.
But none of this seems transformational in the sense of leading to a more productive, higher growth, and less regionally unequal American capitalism. Indeed, this does not seem to be the point; rather, it’s to make the current model of capitalism a bit fairer and a bit more climate friendly. This is laudable, but it falls short of a new model of capitalism that could supplant the appeal of retro-socialism to the Democratic left and undercut GOP efforts to tar Democrats with that brush. That new model of capitalism should be the Holy Grail for Democrats, not a quixotic attempt to replace it.
The Sin of Catastrophism
The third deadly sin I identified last year was catastrophism, which takes many forms across the left, but is clearest in the climate change conversation. I noted that:
There are exceptions of course, but the left’s dominant strand of thinking sees climate change as a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most on the left nod in agreement.
In the year since I wrote these words I don’t think much has changed. This is despite the release of the new IPCC report that assigned a much lower probability to the extreme scenario (RCP8.5) featured in previous reports and deemed the most probable, “business as usual” outcome in those reports. Put another way, the new report was surer that global warming is caused by humans, but much less sure that it would produce an extreme outcome. That would seem to qualify as good news, but the reception of the report still tended toward the apocalyptic. The UN Secretary General characterized the report’s message as a “code red for humanity,” where only immediate, drastic action could prevent “catastrophe.” Countless stories in mainstream media took a similar tack, which was amplified by environmental activists and echoed by most politicians on the left. The impending climate catastrophe and desperate measures to forestall it still remain central to the left’s outlook, rather than a focus on adaptation and continuing technological innovation to allow a transition to clean energy that is both cheap and reliable.
Perhaps the most hopeful development is more willingness to consider nuclear as part of the solution for such a transition. In Japan, France, Britain, and the U.S., leaders have been talking more about an important role for nuclear in the future, while some green activists and commentators have shifted grudgingly in this direction. Any movement toward considering a broader portfolio of clean energy tools like nuclear, carbon capture, and geoengineering is welcome, but on the left the emphasis remains on a very rapid rollout of solely wind and solar, which both have huge intermittency/reliability problems and therefore potentially higher costs. This is naturally quite unpopular with voters, who will tend to blame the left and their climate change catastrophism for making their lives harder and more expensive.
This is not the way to pursue an energy transition. The reality is that these transitions take time and must be economically attractive enough to sustain mass support. The left’s catastrophism does nothing but encourage them to ignore the practical steps necessary to make this happen. That works neither for the left nor the planet.
The Sin of Growthphobia
The fourth deadly sin I discussed was growthphobia, the general underestimation of the importance of more and faster economic growth. I argued that:
[I]t is counterproductive to lose sight of the need for faster growth…Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and the left presumably stands for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes easier the achievement of the left’s other goals. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.
I do not think that much progress has been made on this front. It’s still the case that the left regards the goal of more and faster economic growth with suspicion, preferring to focus on the fairness of how current growth is distributed. This reflects not just an understandable and laudable focus on unequal distribution, but also a general feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling humanity toward doom. The latter view is responsible for the increasing vogue on the left for the idea of “degrowth.”
With such views it is not surprising that economic growth does not rank very high on the left’s list of economic objectives. We can see this in the endless debate around the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill. Essentially none of this debate was concerned with how well the bill, at whatever level of funding and with whatever programmatic commitments, would promote growth. That was simply not on the radar screen, dismissed as something only conservatives would care about.
The reality of course is that ordinary voters are tremendously affected by whether and how much the economy is growing and tend to look askance at parties that deliver poor performance in this area. And we only have to look at the rise of intolerant populist movements to see the unhealthy influence of the very low growth 21st century on the body politic. This makes the left’s nonchalance toward growth all the more puzzling. It may reflect the capture of the left by a highly educated, relatively affluent group for whom growth is less important.
The Sin of Technopessimism
The final deadly sin I discussed in my essay was technopessimism. I observed that:
[M]any on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs rather than leading to skilled-job creation, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens, and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the left’s traditional attitude, which welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure, or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ‘60s with tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.
The passage of a year and a change in presidential administration does not seem to have altered this attitude much. There remains a distinct lack of optimism on the left that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. But there is an endless supply of discussion about a dystopian future that may await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “The good old days were old but not good.”
Doesn’t the left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. There seems to be more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. The very idea of abundance is rarely discussed, except to disparage it.
These attitudes help explain why the left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate (it has yet to pass the House) but with far less funding and far less probable impact on scientific innovation than it had when it was the Endless Frontier Act. But nobody on the left seemed to mind very much since it just wasn’t very high on their priority list.
You can also see this in the rather modest amount of attention and resources devoted to technological advance in the Democrats’ other bills. The bipartisan infrastructure bill did contain some money for developing next generation energy technologies like clean hydrogen, carbon capture, and advanced nuclear, but the amount was comparatively modest. The clean energy money in the current version of the Build Back Better bill, to be passed (someday) through reconciliation is mostly focused on speeding up deployment of wind, solar, and electric vehicles.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that the left thinks about the clean energy future in a dreamy, fuzzy way as entirely driven by all-natural wind and solar power. But if there is to be a clean energy future, especially on the rapid timetables envisioned by most on the left, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite technologies—not all wind and solar—quickly. Here is an area, perhaps more than any other, where the left’s technopessimism does not serve it well.
In the end, most of what the left says it wants to accomplish depends on rapid technological advances. That would seem to call for techno-optimism rather than the current jaundiced attitude toward the potential of technology.
The Future of the Left
The year since I wrote the original essay on the Five Deadly Sins of the Left has not resulted in a sea change in the left’s attitudes embodied in these five sins. Instead, they seem just as or more entrenched than they were. This augurs a future where working class voters continue to drift away from the left, while highly educated elites increasingly define the left’s profile. The economist Thomas Piketty has referred to this development as the rise of the “Brahmin Left.” For the Brahmin Left, the five deadly sins are virtues, since this is what the enlightened among them believe. But for the working class, as well as less ideological upscale voters, these ideas make the left less attractive.
There is still an opening for a left that promotes universal values, a better model of capitalism, practical problem-solving on climate change, and an economy that delivers abundance for all. But the hour may be getting late. The left needs, without delay, to reject the five deadly sins and embark on a program of de-Brahminization. If they fail to do so, the left is likely to continue to decline in popularity.